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First-Hand:Unions and Utilities in New York

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Submitted by Alexander Lurkis

I decided to become an engineer when I was twelve years old. A pamphlet had been distributed in my class in P.S. (Public School) 52, the Bronx, which described the technical studies in the private non-sectarian Hebrew Technical Institute, located in downtown Manhattan. The possibility of conceiving an engineering project and seeing its completion fascinated me. I took the entrance exam and was admitted upon graduation from elementary school. In the meantime, we had moved from the Bronx to Mt. Vernon so, during my entire high school years, I traveled by the elevated line from White Plains and 241st Street to Eighth Street and the Bowery.

My first technical job upon graduation from the Institute, in 1925, at seventeen, was with the Eighth and Ninth Avenues Railway, first as an inspector, then surveyor, then assistant engineer. Because the company was bankrupt, we had to make do with very little. I had to watch the construction of the Eighth Avenue subway to protect our structures. The project I designed which stands out in my memory was the conversion of a horse-car double-crossing to an electrical crossing, which contained the 600 volt conducting rails, accessible through channel rails in the center between the tracks.

Right after graduation from high school, I took the entrance exam for the Cooper Union Night School of Engineering—a five nights a week/five year course to which I was admitted.

Early in life, I learned that you have to be alert to protect your interests. While with the railway, I had taken a city exam for electrical draftsman and scored high on the list but received no appointment. About a year later, I saw an ad for a new exam for draftsmen within the Board of Education. However, I noticed that the vacancies were being filled by provisional (political appointments). I immediately filed a protest. I was then hired by the Board of Education Engineering office in Brooklyn. So here I was living in Mt. Vernon, working in Brooklyn and going to school at night in Manhattan.

1930 was an important year in my life for it was the year I graduated from Cooper Union with a BS in electrical engineering; I passed an exam and was appointed a junior engineer on the Board of Transportation; and, the most important event, I eloped with Carin, an art school graduate of Cooper Union. So, I owe a lot to Cooper Union-for my education and my wife.

In 1934, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia pulled a stunt for which I never forgave him. In the height of the depression, when professionals were selling apples to get food for their families, he arranged for the layoff of over five hundred engineers within the Board of Transportation. I was one of them. We were re-hired four months later with twenty-five to fifty percent cuts in salary. It was a budget gimmick used to get federal funds for needed work, and which gave the mayor an opportunity to claim he cut the city budget by twenty-three million dollars.

As a result of the layoff and cuts in salary, and the additional threat of public engineering and architectural design being farmed out to outside consultants, a few of us got together representing different city departments. We discussed our problems and decided that we must organize to protect our interests. We formed the first civil service technical organization and called it the Civil Service Technical Guild. I was appointed Legislative Chairman and became a lobbyist because our principal efforts required getting legislative acts to provide higher salaries, pensions and improved working conditions.

Later in the fifties, we joined with the CIO and in 1958, we became part of the AFL-CIO. I was elected Vice President and, in 1956, became the President and a Vice President of the District Council 37. I served in these positions, after working hours, while carrying out the responsibilities of my job. The Guild achieved a great deal for the city's technicians. Today it has six thousand members. In 1987, the Guild celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

In 1959, Mayor Robert F. Wagner appointed me to the civil service job of Chief Engineer of the Bureau of Gas and Electricity in the Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity under Commissioner Armand D'Angelo. For a short period in 1961, I was Acting Commissioner, while Mr. D'Angelo was on a leave of absence. As Chief Engineer, I controlled the electrical life of the city. In this capacity, I became involved in rate studies, standards for utility overhead and underground facilities, the preparation of the Electrical Code and approval of all electrical installations in public and private structures.

I was in office only eight months, when the first major Con Ed 1959 blackout hit the city, at 2:56 p.m., shutting down five square miles of upper Manhattan at the beginning of the rush hour. Service was not fully restored until 3:42 a.m., the following morning. Hundreds of thousands were trapped in elevators and subway trains; industry and commerce ceased operations; traffic was snarled as signals went blank; hospital operations stopped in the midst of surgery; water pumps failed. The city was in a frenzy.

Con Ed claimed an "act of God." Mayor Wagner directed me to investigate this happening. My conclusion was that "God" could not be blamed. The fault was in the distribution system. After the blackout, Con Ed stated that, "The mathematical chances are negligible, that a similar situation will develop again." However, Con Ed proved to be a poor prophet as evidenced by the blackouts of 1961, 1962, 1965, 1971, 1977 and 1981. Later in 1981, I wrote, The Power BrinkCon Edison- A Centennial Of Electricity, which explained the reasons for each blackout. I self published the book under ICARE PRESS. (See Spectrum, April 1984 and The New York Times 12/20/81 for book reviews.)

In 1964, I had thirty-five years of city service. I decided it was time to retire. I held a press conference at City Hall to announce my retirement. "I suppose, now that you are leaving the city, you'll probably be working for Con Ed?" "Who, me?" was my reply. "In all likelihood, I'll be working against them!" Sure enough, two days later I received a call from James Cope of Selvage and Lee a public relations firm for the Scenic Hudson. This was an environmental group opposing Con Ed's 2,000,000 KW pumped storage plant proposed to be built at Storm King Mountain. Scenic Hudson was opposed because of the adverse effect on the environment and the damage to the fish in the Hudson. I was retained to provide technical testimony against the project.

I knew that I must come up with a constructive alternative. After considerable research, I learned that three successful installations of peaking gas turbines had been made by Public Service E&G of New Jersey, Cincinnati G&E, and the City of Holyoke. The operators were highly enthusiastic about the turbines' performances.

I presented my conclusions to the New York State Legislative Committee on Natural Resources and they unanimously agreed with me that the gas turbines would provide greater flexibility, resulting in lower costs, and that meeting the peak times would be more reliable with the elimination of transmission lines and the placement of units within the city.

A rehearing was requested before the Federal Power Commission, but they refused. It was only after an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who issued a landmark decision, criticizing the FPC for not searching out alternatives, that a rehearing was held.

Despite my presentations and that of other experts, the FPC examiner recommended building Storm King. After years of legal sparring, Con Ed finally, in 1980, agreed to abandon the project and installed 2,069 MW of as turbines.

Because I was back in engineering after retiring in 1964, I organized a Consulting Engineering Company-Alexander Lurkis Associates, and later Alexander Lurkis, P.C. The American Museum of Natural History hired us to revamp their entire electrical distribution system, design many exhibits and floodlight the facade.

Roche and Dinkeloo, Architects, retained us to floodlight the facade and fountains of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many other museums called on our firm to design their projects. The last design of the firm was lighting the Central Park Skating Rink (NYC). Many localities retained me as an expert in environmental cases for appearances before the Federal Power Commission and Public Service Commissions. Many cities asked us to study and design new lighting systems including: Cincinnati, Washington, DC, Garden City, Miami Beach, New Orleans and Harrisburg. We received an award from HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) and the American Iron and Steel Institute for the Cincinnati work.

In 1981, I terminated my design work and have concentrated on testifying in electrical negligence cases. I spend a lot of time gardening at my home in Holliswood, New York and writing.

I have written two novels and one play that have not been published. When I attended the 1987 NYU Writers' Conference, I was the oldest conferee. Since my wife is an artist, we spend a great deal of time collecting oriental art. I have very few idle moments, now in the winter of my life, because I know not much time is left.